Alex woke with a start.  He looked around the Hall of Elders, as he had fallen asleep in a chair with his arms folded on the table, his head cradled in them like a child.  It was early morning, evidenced by the sunlight that was just beginning to seep into the room from the balcony.  Alexander had not been able to sleep after the discovery of Daniel’s body, and had wandered the passageways of the Citadel until sitting down in the Hall to cry.  He had difficulty believing that Daniel had been keeping his lusts from them for so long.  He himself had spent weeks on the road with Dan, never suspecting.

            Or had they suspected?  Had the signs really always been there?  He had seen Daniel’s ability to flirt.  Shying away from such thoughts had contributed to his restlessness.  It had been an awful night.  He had only fallen asleep after crying himself into exhaustion.  First Owen, and now Daniel… it seemed like this Reza had marked them for death, and had proven he could strike at them even within the safe walls of the Citadel.  Alex knew that Neal would want him to send out the soldiers to begin a search for the killer.

            He wondered why he had awakened.  The air was still and quiet, no one was up in this part of the building yet, and he himself had been beyond tired.  Just as he was trying to decide whether he should just put his head back down or make the effort to walk back to his rooms, Alex felt a hand rest on his shoulder.  Alex burst out of his chair, feeling lightning bolts of fear-induced energy coursing through his body.

            “SHIT, ETHAN!”  He gasped as he saw his friend.  “You just took years off my life.”

            Ethan stood there quietly, and gave a wry smile.  “Sorry, Alexander.  I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I felt we should talk.”

            Alex put his hand over his heart, feeling it beating like a jackrabbit’s, and rested his other hand on the back of a nearby chair for balance as he caught his breath.  Ethan stood patiently, his hands behind his back.  Alexander remembered a time when Ethan had been awkward and clumsy, and now the young man stood with confidence and yet at ease as well.  It was remarkable how the years could change a person.

            “What did you want to talk about?”

            Ethan gestured at the chairs, inviting Alex to sit.  They both settled into their seats, and Ethan rested his hands on the wooden surface of the table, pausing as if he was thinking of the best way to start.

            “You saw my report to Neal…  It was awful, how Daniel died, but we would most certainly have had to do something about his crimes ourselves sooner or later.”

            “You’ve already heard?”  Alex asked.  Neal had dealt with the bodies himself, not notifying guards or housekeepers, intent on performing an act of penitence for not having been aware of their friend’s behaviour.  Alex had thought that perhaps no one else knew about the previous night’s events yet.

            “Neal spoke to Simon and myself late last night.  He wanted our advice.  We all think it best that we not reveal Daniel’s part in the recent kidnappings; the scandal for our cause might be too much for the people.  Neal has decided that we immediately send out a patrol with you leading it, and tell people when you come back that Daniel was with you and died defending our citizens from raiders.  These troubled times do not need more upheaval.”

            “You want us to lie?”  Alexander asked.

            “Simon and Neal feel it is the best course of action, to preserve peace in the towns.  They cannot doubt our ability to protect them, or they will turn on us.”

            “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with lying…”

            “You won’t have to.  Just lead a patrol and come back.  Neal will handle the public announcements.  We just wanted you to know what was happening.”

            “Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?  That could have waited till later.”  Alexander said, stifling a yawn.  “No offence, Ethan, but I’m exhausted.”

            “I know, and I apologize for waking you.  However, I felt now was the best time to discuss something else, as everyone else is still asleep.”  Ethan’s voice quieted to a whisper as he leaned closer to Alex.  “I am not sure that our companions are entirely trustworthy.”

            Alex felt his heart race.  “What do you mean?  That you suspect one of them is the killer?”

            “Perhaps.”  Ethan shrugged.  “I think that Neal, Jay and Evan and yourself were too quick to the scene to be suspects.  I heard that there was a great deal of blood, and that would be difficult to clean up, and still run to the scene of the crime with everyone else.  No, they aren’t suspects.  But perhaps they had something to do with it.  Somehow the killer got into the fortress.”

            “I was planning on interviewing the soldiers.”  Alex told him.

            “Be subtle.  Don’t give away why you’re asking, or details about the crime.  But there is something else that disturbs me more.  My investigation showed that some of Daniel’s closest men knew that he was kidnapping and murdering women.  They are dangerous, and should be removed from duty in the Citadel, if not released from service altogether.  More importantly, he was paying them and living quite well himself, indicating that somehow he has another source of income.”

            “What does that have to do with anything?”  Alex said, puzzled.

            “I’m only beginning to uncover details, but I think there may be an elaborate smuggling operation occurring.  You yourself have seen the plight of the villages on your patrols, and yet things here in the Citadel are opulent.  Something more is going on, and I don’t think Daniel was behind it all himself.  I’m investigating Owen’s murder as well, and I think he may have been involved.”

            “Owen was Neal’s best friend, that’s crazy.  How could we not have noticed something like that going on right under our noses?”  Alex said.

            “Perhaps some of us knew and hid it from the rest.”  Ethan suggested.

            “That’s some conspiracy theory you have there.  Our best friends have been hiding kidnappings, smuggling and murders.  Next you’ll tell me that aliens killed JFK while dinosaurs ate the Lindbergh baby.”  Alex scoffed.

            “Think about it, Alexander.  Owen worked with Neal every day.  Neal appointed you and Daniel to run the army.  Daniel and Owen abused their authority for their own gain without us noticing.  How else could it be possible?”

            “Are you suggesting my own cousin is behind their behaviour?”  Alex whispered, his voice tense.

            “I’m not accusing him of anything.  I’m just saying that, if he didn’t know about it, he certainly gave them more than enough unsupervised power to get away with it.  At best Neal was negligent as our leader, at worst…  He may have arranged to have them killed to hide his involvement with their crimes.  You did say that he disposed of the body himself.”

            Alex stood, knocking over his chair, and began pacing around the room.  He fought to restrain anger, running his hands through his dishevelled hair.  He was so tired, and there was so much happening so fast…

            “What can we do about it?” Alexander asked finally.

            “Nothing, for now.”  Ethan said, looking up at him from his chair.  “You go patrolling.  Seek the soldiers you can trust, gain their loyalty.  Be ready for things to change, while I carefully investigate.  Once I have proof either way, I’ll let you know and then we can choose a course of action.  I know one thing, however.  If Neal is untrustworthy, I would not hesitate to follow you, Alex.  Everyone respects you.”

            “Thank you.”  Alex said, surprised by the compliment.  Neal had always assumed leadership.  “I had never given it a thought…”

            “Really?  But you seem such a natural.  I suppose living in Neal’s shadow became so normal that you just accepted it.  It’s a pity, as you show so much talent for it.”

            Alex bristled.  “I don’t live in Neal’s shadow…” But then he paused.  He remembered how Neal had always been the captain of their hockey teams, and had immediately taken charge during any circumstances that required leadership.  Even on the mountain and here at the Citadel.  He had hogged the spotlight with reporters, and never tried to share it.

            Ethan watched Alex stop pacing and stand, thinking carefully.  He waited a moment and then continued.

            “I always wondered why you let him take over all the time.  It’s like he trained you to accept his rule… like a lap dog, his pet.  I personally have been disgusted by the way he imposes on you,”  Ethan said.  “You and I were always closer friends, and even in high school I felt bad about the way he’d use you to accomplish his ends.  He manipulates you.”

            “You’re right,”  Alex said quietly, realizing the truth of Ethan’s words.

            “I remember how you used to have a crush on my sister.  Remember how we talked about that before we went on that ski trip?  How you were going to ask her out on a date?  You came to me and asked for permission, I always respected that.  But Neal went home with her that summer and they started dating… He stole her from you.  I was so angry…  After all, you and I had always been friends, and you knew Genevieve better.  He never talked to her in high school, didn’t know her at all, and yet somehow he wormed his way into her heart…”

            Alex was digging his fingers into his palms, making fists that were so tense that his fingernails broke through the skin.  He gritted his teeth.  Ethan was calmly dissecting his innermost secrets, thoughts he himself had been hiding from the others for years.  The day that Neal married Genevieve had almost broken his heart.  Only going on constant patrols away from them had kept him sane.  But even now he still longed to see Genevieve whenever he rode back to the Citadel.  He had been greatly disappointed to hear she had already left on her yearly voyage back to Ontario.

            Alex strode back to the table, standing over Ethan with his fists clenched.  “Ethan, I will gather a force of men loyal to me.  Should you uncover any evidence suggesting Neal was complicit in these crimes, let me know.  If my cousin killed our friends, if he knew about these crimes, I will personally cut out his black heart.”

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